TAMPA — In high school, Mitchell Bernier ran with the Latin Kings gang. "A boyhood infatuation," he calls it.
He enjoyed the company, but his girlfriend didn't like the gang label. He ditched the group when they married.
He started to build a life. Worked his way up to assistant manager at Walgreens, a job that came with benefits and a 401(k). Reveled in the birth of his daughter. Rented a home in Town 'N Country so she could have a yard to play in.
An incidental encounter with his past destroyed everything.
He stopped in on an Aug. 20, 2006, Latin Kings reunion at the Caribbean American Club off Interbay Boulevard, invited by an old buddy and not planning to stay long. He ate chips and drank soda. When a guy named Luis "Danny" Agosto wouldn't let him leave, Bernier headed to a corner to jump rope as part of his amateur boxing training.
He remembers seeing dozens of law enforcement officers burst through the doors, carrying guns and shields and wearing full armor.
"I thought I was on Candid Camera," he said last week.
The joke wore off as he spent 152 days in jail on racketeering charges. The 25-year-old whose prior record included only misdemeanor arrests but not convictions for underage drinking and marijuana possession lost his job, his benefits, his marriage, his daughter, his hope.
All that for this: Days before Bernier was supposed to go to trial, prosecutors offered a plea deal of probation. When he refused, they dropped the charges because of a lack of evidence against him.
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According to law enforcement, the August 2006 raid ensnared more than 50 dangerous Latin Kings. Officials touted the arrests as the culmination of a 15-month investigation dubbed "Down Crown," a reference to the gang's crown symbol.
But on April 7, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Daniel Sleet ruled there was no evidence that 23 of the defendants had planned, conspired or committed crimes together. Because attending a Latin Kings meeting is not a crime, the judge threw out the racketeering charges.
The ruling means those defendants no longer face as much as 30 years in prison. But they have paid a price.
Some got scared and took plea deals of house arrest and probation before Sleet dismissed the charges. Three of those individuals violated their probation — one by leaving the county for a day at the beach — and landed in prison.
Others were jailed nearly 20 months awaiting trial. They missed holidays with their families, funerals of loved ones and time with their children. They lost thousands of dollars in attorneys' fees and bail money and their jobs as landscapers, hardwood floor installers, city bus drivers, nightclub security guards, glass installers and restaurant cooks.
With the stain of a racketeering arrest still on their records, they struggle to rebuild.
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Efren Rosado, 37, was one of the defendants stuck in jail for 20 months.
No stranger to jail jumpsuits and handcuffs, the former leader of the Latin Kings tribe in Miami has served three stints in Florida prisons. Records show he always pleaded guilty or no contest before trial.
When he's wrong, Rosado says, he comes clean.
This time, he didn't think he had done anything wrong. After 20 years as an active Latin Kings member, he had distanced himself from the organization upon his release from prison in 2003 for credit card fraud and grand theft. He worked as a bounty hunter in the Northeast.
He returned to Florida in late July 2006, planning to make his way down to Miami where his young son lived. He got a job in landscaping.
Two Fridays in a row, he said, he drank beer and played pool with Agosto, whom he met through a mutual friend. Agosto invited him to an Aug. 20 party.
At the time, Rosado didn't know that Agosto was an informer instructed by law enforcement to net guns, drugs and Latin Kings. He also didn't know that the party hall had been rented and wired for surveillance by officers.
Rosado was arrested on charges of racketeering, conspiring to commit racketeering and possession of a firearm by a felon, the last charge picked up because Agosto tried to shove a gun into his hands before the meeting, Rosado said.
He spent his entire jail stay — 596 days — in solitary confinement. Detention deputies worried he would try to recruit gang members, he said.
The isolation took its toll.
"I saw my client's mind deteriorating," attorney John Grant recalled. "I just felt him slipping."
Rosado's brother and nephew died of heart problems while he was in jail. He didn't speak to his son, now 6, because he didn't want to explain where daddy had gone. His attorney was his only regular visitor.
Now three weeks out of jail with all of his charges dismissed, he is finding his way with the help of friends. One let him move into his home in St. Petersburg. The owner of Integrity Roofing and Repairs gave him a job.
But still, he feels paranoid and uncomfortable with freedom. At the grocery store, he said, "I feel like everybody's looking at me."
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Interesting legal questions remain.
Attorneys Kimberley Kohn and Lyann Goudie are investigating potential civil action on behalf of Rosado, Bernier and others for false arrest, malicious prosecution and civil rights violations. They question the basis for such stiff charges in light of Sleet's ruling that the Latin Kings had been dormant for several months before law enforcement encouraged their informer to revive meetings and turned a blind eye as he committed crimes and threatened people with bodily harm if they didn't attend.
And what of the individuals who pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit racketeering in exchange for probation? Attorneys are discussing whether those people could withdraw their pleas on the basis that Sleet found no crime had been committed by the majority of their fellow defendants.
"It's a wonderful legal argument," said attorney Anthony Marchese, whose two clients took plea deals. One went to prison for violating his probation. "The question is, can they un-ring the bell."
Was the jailing of the suspected gang members just?
The sheriff, police chief and chief prosecutor wouldn't comment last week, citing the pending charges against a handful of defendants in an otherwise ravaged case. The Tampa Police Department is planning to tighten its rules for supervising informers and is reviewing whether current protocol was followed for the investigation.
As Agosto, the informer, continues to draw a $2,400 monthly salary from the FBI, Bernier has lost out on two well-paying jobs because employers couldn't get past the racketeering arrest.
His wife left him while he was jailed, the emotional strain and negative implications of his arrest too much for her to handle. He can't afford a plane ticket to visit his 6-year-old daughter in Tampa.
He lives with his father and grandmother in New York and sees a therapist for depression.
He's one of several former defendants in the case who say their ordeal has inspired them to pursue careers in the legal field.
"This isn't what it was made out to be," Bernier said. "A lot of people's lives were ruined."
Colleen Jenkins can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.